Archived entries for future of publishing

Proposed Literary Remakes

The recent announcement that The Hogarth Shakespeare program has invited notable writers like Margaret Atwood to revise and update some of the Bard’s greatest hits signifies that the literary world is finally getting wise to what television and movies have known for years—you’ll never find an audience pushing anything new, you need to give people properties they’re familiar with, only dusted off just enough to feel fresh. We here at Failbetter pride ourselves on our willingness to hop on the bandwagon, and as such have prepared this list of proposed updates to some literary classics.


First of all, I feel like we can shave some pages off this sucker, right? I’m all for long books, I’ve read The Stand, but this thing is long as hell for a book about two guys walking around. And why are they walking around? What’s their motivation? I get the connection to the Odyssey, okay, but that’s so played out, isn’t it? What if instead Stephen and Leopold were sworn enemies, and they were in fact hunting one another through the streets of Belfast? I know the original takes place in Dublin, but moving it to Belfast lets us introduce an IRA angle, like maybe they were both involved in the struggle and one betrayed the other, and now it’s payback time. I’d keep the part where Bloom masturbates to that woman on the beach. If at that point we already know he’s a merciless killer, that’s going to make the reader really wonder what this guy is capable of.

The Great Gastby

Hm, let’s think…a super rich, super intense, super handsome guy obsessed with a beautiful woman who is easily dominated by strong personalities…what enormously successful recent bestselling trilogy does that remind me of…here’s an idea, let’s load in

a bunch of berserk S&M. As is, Gatsby is looking for Daisy to acquiesce with his take on reality and their shared history, so getting her gussied up with a bridle and all manner of clamps, we can call that a metaphor, right?


Swap the Mediterranean for Kabul, strip out all the humor. At the end, instead of escaping, Yossarian shoots himself in the head.  That should be about all it takes to net this one a National Book award, at least.

Portnoy’s Complaint

Cash in on the mania for dystopia by setting this in the far future, and changing Mary Jane ‘The Monkey’ Reed to some sort of sexual gratification robot. That’ll add some pathos to all the scenes where Portnoy is mean to her, because then it’ll be like, does she even have a soul? And also it’ll make some comment on consumerism, maybe, because he bought this sex robot but he kind of hates it. Add the words ‘A Parable’ under the title on the cover. People love that kind of thing.

The Catcher in the Rye

Young Holden Caufield never felt like he fit in…and on his eighteenth birthday, he finds out why when a letter from his mother reveals that Holden is in fact a werewolf. Not just any werewolf, though, for Holden is the fabled Lycan Prince, destined to guide his people to superiority over all life on Earth. Will Holden embrace his destiny, or will he discover that were-folk are just as phony as regular people?

War and Peace

Another big boy we can easily trim. Early on, there’s a scene where Pierre goes to a party and these rich guys are messing with a live bear chained to the wall…I say we run with that. Pierre rescues the bear, killing one of these rich guys in the process, and the two of them go on the run to escape punishment. Also, lets set this one in the future, too, so the bear can…maybe not speak conversationally, but it can talk just enough to make its opinions known. Have the bear occasionally comment on how great nature is to rope in the ‘Green’ crowd. I’m super tempted to say we should ditch the war angle and add in some kind of crazy plague, but the title is so iconic, it would be a real shame to lose it.

To Kill a Mockingbird

It’s tempting to set this in the future have the kids hunting one another for sport, but maybe this one we can leave alone. Some things are sacred.

The “Count”: failbetter, 2011

One late night, having had too much coffee, I got a little curious as to what our “count” might look like if VIDA had chosen to review our gender ratio as they had other publications at the conclusion of 2010 and 2011.  So, I took to counting our number of female and male authors, artists and interviewees whom we published in 2011. Happily, I discovered that –although we didn’t have an exact balance–our split was fairly even, with a total of 19 men and 15 women. Check out our pie-chart below and let us know what you think!

A breakdown of male and female authors, artists and interviewees featured on in 2011.

A breakdown of male and female authors, artists and interviewees featured on in 2011.

End of the Beginning…

bookshelf_iphoneNo, I’m not talking about the current events in Egypt. Nor are we here at failbetter about to get all religious on your ass. What we’re witnessing these days is a business, the publishing business, that amidst our apparent economic turmoil may actually be, or should I say finally be, coming to terms with the future. Ah yes, dear Mr and Mrs Book Publisher, the digital age is here to stay. Of course, some will claim it may be to our own cultural downfall, but others have hopefully put a more humorous and intellectual spin on the possibilities.

Day one here at the annual Associated Writing Programs Conference has afforded me the opportunity to take a look at the many pub colleagues who are finally embracing, or at least, facing the realities of the digital world — eBooks and ePub, Kindles and mobi, iPad and apps — all in effort to see to the book’s survival. For years, decades really, folks have been touting the supremacy of the eBook and its replacement of our old paper friend…yet the number never backed up such bold statements. Now in the past year alone, those proclamations seem to be coming to fruition. According to the folks at CLMP and more specifically, from the big six publishers taking part in the recent Digital Book World meetings, digital sales put up some rather startling numbers in the past year. Here’s just a few facts from US sales alone:

  • 10.5 million dedicated eReaders (i.e., Kindles) were sold
  • 10 million tablets (i.e., iPads) were purchased
  • Strangely enough over 1/3 of the iPad owners also own a Kindle
  • Over 20 million Americans read an eBook in 2010
  • They spent 1 billion dollars on eBook purchases
  • Sales predictions for 2011 are estimated at 1.3 billion

The last figure of course reveals that much of the market share remains in within the pages of the printed book. But while sales continue to steadily decline in that format, the predicted 30% increase in e-sales for this year alone is more than just a trend.

Meanwhile, thanks to Moore’s Law, the purchasing price of eReaders has dropped to nearly $100. A few years ago, when an audience was asked to raise their hands if they owned such a device, perhaps only a handful would. In just a few years, those days are no longer the case (certainty not here at AWP). So, even the hundreds of little literary publishers represented here this conference, the supposed “seventh” publishing house of the industry, now find themselves scrambling to make the backlists immediately available in pdf, no longer fighting the simultaneous release of books in both printed and electronic form, and venturing down the path of creating their own direct sales shops via apps that can work on iPhones and Androids.

All that doom and groom that cast a pal over the industry now gives way to hope. As one recent poll suggests, more than 66% of the reading public find themselves reading more because of digital readers. In the ye-olde-digital age, literature will not just survive, it can thrive.

Huffington it….

huffingtonThis past summer, Huffington Post literary columnist, Anis Shivani, posted, “17 Literary Journals That Might Survive the Internet” — as if the internet was something that one needed to be rescued from.  With over a decade of documented success, we here at failbetter have become tired of this debate (print vs. online).  In fact, in our minds, the question is moot.  I told the Huffington Post as much — and  told them not to merely take our word, but ask our other online brethren.  Guess what?  They did.  Check it out today’s “Online Literary Journals Come of Age: 15 Top Online Journal Editors Speak.”

Gabba gabba we accept you we accept
you one of us

There’s been a bit of a hullabaloo over Tin House’s decision to accept book manuscript submissions only from writers who can provide receipts showing they’ve recently bought a literary magazine.  And for good reason, it seems to me.  Not only because the rule is arbitrary and a bit silly, but because it reinforces, in the minds of anyone who has anything to do with literary publishing, the notion that this world should continue to be insular, and perhaps become even more so, if that’s possible.  If you’re not One Of Us, Tin House is saying, Don’t Bother.

But isn’t insularity one of literary publishing’s biggest problems – one that helps ensure both the same-same-iness of so much of what’s published, and the failure to gain readers from among the broader public?  Already, too many literary publishers put out far too much work that’s just no damn good, but makes the cut because it comes from someone with an academic credential, who’s already published via other, similar publications, and goes to Our Parties and Our Conferences.  Sure, the Tin House move will have little effect in reinforcing this system.  But why should anyone reinforce it in any way?

Keeping up with the Joneses

The other day, I finally got my hands on an iPad, and I must admit, I was impressed.  Sure, I understand why some have been quick to dismiss this neat gadget.  And like any new technology, it has its limits.  Nevertheless, I could see why everyone wants to check it out.

By now, you probably know that we at are celebrating ten years of publishing great fiction, poetry, visual art, and author interviews. At AWP in Denver, we got the festivities underway with a gala cocktail hour and reading, featuring Sherman Alexie, Michael Martone, Terese Svoboda, and several hundred happy attendees. Soon, we’ll choose the winner of our Tenth Anniversary Novella Contest, with the victor netting a $500 prize, and the work to run in installments, starting this fall.  We’ll we have one more big project in store for the year.  This December, we’ll put out an anthology of the best fiction and poetry we’ve published so far. 

That’s where the iPad comes in.

In addition to spending the year compiling our best work from the past decade, we’re also figuring out in which of the multitudes of publishing formats said anthology will be made available: e-book, Kindle, Nook, and now iPad.  Sure, we’ll also publish the collection on traditional print as well.  So while folks will continue to debate the lasting impact of the latest publishing invention, we’ll just jump on board and go along for the ride.  After all, publishing in yet another format may seem excessive – but if this enables us to get great writing to even a few more readers, it will be worth our while.

Apple will drive ebook prices
lower than Amazon would dare

At TechCrunch the other day, Erick Schonfeld posted that Apple, by allowing book publishers to charge what they want for ebooks, is gaining a critical advantage over Amazon in the battle to be the top ebooks retailer. This may well be true, as Apple, by building good relationships with publishers, would be well-positioned to get better terms, i.e. take more per sale, as well as get the chance to sell hot new titles before Amazon can, and so forth.

But will Apple sell more ebooks by letting publishers charge more for them? I highly doubt it. Rupert Murdoch and the lions of print can blather about how Amazon’s pricing strategy “devalues books,” but that strategy is based on a considered recognition of what consumers are willing to pay. Look at book prices – not nominal retail prices, i.e. the sticker on the front of the book, but the prices consumers actually pay. Factoring in returns and remainders, for the vast majority of titles, the average price of each copy printed is far lower than the nominal retail price.

Why don’t book houses simply lower the nominal price, in order to sell more copies, more quickly? They’re pursuing a discriminatory pricing strategy, by getting the “gotta have that book now” people to pay through the nose up front, then, by design or not, allowing the price of the remaining copies to fall, to levels at which other consumers will buy them. (I hope someone at these houses is doing this consciously, balancing the costs of warehousing, dealing with returns, etc., with the money to be made on volume sales, long after publication, at lower prices.)

In effect, by insisting on high ebook prices, publishers might be saying they want the freedom to pursue some similar strategy with ebooks. They could, for example, charge more for new titles, and those older titles in high demand, and lower prices for the rest. But $14.99 (or higher), the figure Macmillan insisted on in negotiating with Amazon, seems far too high a starting point. As Amazon recognizes, new ebook prices can be far lower than those for new print books, because ebook production, storage, and transfer costs essentially nothing, radically reducing the amount publishers invest in each title. Amazon also understands that lower ebook prices will entice readers to move to ebooks, and why wouldn’t that be a good thing for publishers? I don’t know the numbers, but I’m guessing that publishers’ effective margins, on an e-title sold at $9.99, are as high or higher than on the same title, sold in print, at a higher nominal price. So publishers must view the Kindle and the iPad not as a means of reaching more consumers, but as a means of extracting more money from those of their current customers who’ve switched to onscreen bookreading. The problem, of course, is that their strategy is likely to drive many of those folks away from books, and toward cheaper, readily accessible alternatives to much of what’s published in book form – all the free content that’s available on the Web, for example.

Back to Apple and its efforts to make nice with book houses. I share what I think is Schonfeld’s view, that this is aimed at driving Amazon out of the ebook business, or at least reducing its hold on that business. That might work, especially because the iPad, from the look of things, is much more powerful and usable than the Kindle – even if it’s not quite good enough to be anything other than a niche device. But if Apple succeeds in this, do publishers really believe that it won’t use its stranglehold on ebook sales to drive prices down as far as they’ll go? And, in addition, force publishers to offer condensed versions of each title for sale at a bargain rate, and to break up titles for sale on a chapter-by-chapter basis, also at rock-bottom prices? Hello? Whatever Steve Jobs is saying during his “secret” New York meetings with publishers, they should ignore it, and get ready for the era of the 99-cents-per-song strategy, applied to their products.

Not that this will be bad for consumers, or, ultimately, for writers and publishers too. A more sensible pricing strategy should have a huge, positive effect on sales of ebooks, and of other text content, delivered in electronic form. And writers’ and editors’ cut of revenue should be far higher, with far less money spent on production, distribution, and storage – not to mention ineffectual marketing, and pricy midtown Manhattan office space.

More appropriate formatting, lower prices,
and bundling will sell more e-content..

…not a new device, iPad or whatever. Apple, though, may revolutionize text publishing by using the iPad’s launch to rope text publishers into making the changes they’ve needed to make all along. Namely, increasing their publications’ substance-to-fluff ratio, by publishing more stuff in articles (non-fiction) and stories or novellas (fiction) rather than in books. Setting prices in accord with demand, rather than tradition. And letting users buy content in bundles, via subscriptions, rather than forcing them to buy each item by the piece.

Book publishers still use paper galleys? Really?

It’s been a while since I was an editor at a traditional print publisher, and whenever I talk to friends who still work in that world, or read about it, I marvel at how little has changed. I’m not usually surprised, per se – continuity, for many of these folks, including the people who run most houses, is one of the selling points of print publishing. But occasionally I do happen on some bit of trivia that’s smack-me-in-the-face stunning. Such as the fact, which I just learned, that most book publishers still use physical galleys, to let authors and editors make corrections before sending a title to press. Wow. They’re still paying all that money to ship the things around to authors and copyeditors and back? Having to store them and make sure not a page is lost or misplaced? Having to decipher the scratchings of several different people, on every galley?

Indeed they are, according to this Digital Book World post, by Susan Ruszala, the marketing director of NetGalley. The post is worth reading, by the way, as evidence of how slowly print pub houses are changing, and how hard it is to lead them to do things they should have done 15 years ago – such as switch to virtual galleys, either generated and tracked in-house, or provided by a service such as NetGalley. The post is also a masterpiece of therapeutic-level coddling – Ruszala understands that you don’t just have to lead this parched-from-thirst horse to water, you have to stroke his mane lovingly, coo in his ear… and resist the urge to punch him in the face and scream, “DRINK, YOU DUMBSHIT!” To wit, this passage, which could be summarized as “Duh!”:

Think back to when company websites first became standard practice.

Before there was the corporate website, there was the corporate brochure. Carefully crafted, reflective of its values, glossy, and artistic — and also extraordinarily constrained, expensive to produce, and quickly outdated. Today my safe guess is that there are very few corporate brochures produced solely to deliver information about a company. They are marketing pieces designed to impress; more experiential than informational.

A website, on the other hand, delivers both a visual impression and deep information about a company; it is only limited by how easy it is for visitors to navigate the site.

This is exactly where we are with digital galleys.

Joe Wikert’s 2010 (e-reader) predictions…

…are right-on:

#1 — The year of the richer ebook. Let’s face it. The e-future of this industry is not quick-and-dirty p-to-e conversions. Pricing pressures and value propositions mean these will be nothing more than revenue rounding errors for the foreseeable future. 2010 will be the year where we’ll see more investment in richer e-content products. I’m not talking about simply slapping some video into a book, btw. We’ll see more digital-first initiatives where the print version, if there even is one, will be considered secondary. Start thinking about not just reading but overall entertainment. Think also about the capabilities of multi-function devices, not dedicated e-readers. More on that in a moment…

#2 — Most publishers will largely ignore prediction #1. Call it another case of “The Innovator’s Dilemma”. Far too many publishers will continue treating e-content as an easy way to squeeze a few more bucks out of Kindle editions of print products. Those publishers should remember that the core concept behind “The Innovator’s Dilemma” is that this approach leaves the door wide open for a start-up to reinvent the entire industry.

#3 — Single-purpose, dedicated devices lose momentum to multi-purpose ones. Thanks in large part to prediction #1, more and more prospective customers will find it harder to justify a $300 investment in a dedicated device. (Btw, I had a chance to play with a Nook at B&N recently. I saw the potential but left discouraged. They went to the trouble of adding a color display and do almost nothing with it. And why in the world don’t they open the device up to third-party developers to see what new and exciting uses the could come up with?! But I digress…)

I’d add a few of my own:

#4 – E-book sales will rise along with e-reader sales – but then will decline, as (text) publishers begin to put out more and more content in different forms, more appropriate to the e-reading experience. My money’s on short stories and novellas (for fiction) and articles (for non-fiction). Publishers might put them in packages called “books,” but most will be far shorter – with much less filler – than today’s books.

#5 – Under the pressure of competition from short-format text content, book (and e-book) prices will fall sharply.

#6 – New and non-traditional publishers will pioneer efforts to publish text content in new forms, and sell it in new ways, at low prices. And as a result…

#7 – Traditional book publishers will go out of business in droves, or be bought for their names, and see their staffs and spending cut to the bone.

#8 – Multi-purpose e-readers, i.e. media tablets, will indeed make a big splash – but single-purpose devices, a la Kindle, will thrive too. Kindle, with its lack of distractions, reasonable display quality, and access to a growing content library, is perfect for the small segment of the population that prefers immersive reading, of long-form content. These people aren’t going away – and they buy a lot of content, so there’s plenty of money to be made by selling them e-readers and e-books.

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